Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: Ilka Hartmann


* Professor of population studies and biology at Stanford University
*  Author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb
*  Predicted worldwide famines as a result of overpopulation
*  “We’ve already had too much economic growth in the United States. Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure.”

Born in Philadelphia on May 29, 1932, Paul Ralph Ehrlich earned a B.A. in zoology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953, followed by M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Kansas (1955 and 1957, respectively). After completing his education, Ehrlich worked as a researcher before accepting a teaching post in 1959 at Stanford University, where he subsequently became a Professor of Biology in 1966 and a Bing Professor of Population Studies in 1976.

In 1968 Ehrlich co-founded the organization Zero Population Growth, now known as Population Connection. That same year, he published The Population Bomb (co-authored with his wife, fellow Stanford biologist Anne Ehrlich). This bestselling book was a distillation of the many articles and lectures that Paul Ehrlich had previously written predicting that runaway population growth would eventually cause mankind to “breed itself into oblivion.”

In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich stated: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.”

Ehrlich claimed that “the only answer” capable of averting these potential catastrophes was a program of “population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” He declared, moreover, that “the addition,” by government operatives, “of sterilants to water supplies or staple food” might be a feasible way of addressing overpopulation, and that “doses of the antidote” to these sterilants should “be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired population size.” Ehrlich lamented, however, that “society would probably dissolve” before the machinery of government would be able to implement such a plan.

Asserting that Americans “must [also] power to push other countries into … population control,” Ehrlich in 1968 stated that “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971, if ever.” He favored “sterilizing all Indian males with three or more children,” and said that the U.S. government should send “doctors to aid in the [sterilization] program by setting up centers for training para-medical personnel to do vasectomies.” Years later, Ehrlich called China’s policy of forced abortion “remarkably vigorous and effective,” and he commended that nation “as a leader in a grand experiment in the management of population and natural resources.”

In 1969 Ehrlich published an article titled “Eco-Catastrophe!” in the radical magazine Ramparts, where he wrote: “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born. By [1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions.”

In 1970 Ehrlich and Gaylord Nelson decided to organize a nationwide teach-in on environmentalism. They recruited Denis Hayes to coordinate and implement the event, called Earth Day, which was held on April 22, 1970 and thereafter became an annual happening.

In a speech during Earth Day festivities in 1970, Ehrlich said: “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.”

In 1974 Ehrlich and his wife published The End of Affluence, a book in which they warned that warned of a “nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970s (or, at the latest, the 1980s).” “Due to a combination of ignorance, greed, and callousness,” the authors elaborated, “a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death…. Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity [in which] the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be nearing depletion.”

Throughout the 1970s and afterward, Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions snared a generation of reporters and Green activists who gave his totalitarian prescriptions serious consideration. Among those predictions were the following:

  • Falling temperatures would cause the polar ice caps to sink into the ocean, producing “a global tidal wave that could wipe out a substantial portion of mankind” and cause “the sea level [to] rise 60 to 100 feet.” (1970)
  • “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” (speech during Earth Day, 1970)
  • “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100–200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” (April 1970)
  • “Air pollution … is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” (1970)
  • “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” (speech at British Institute For BiologySeptember 1971)

Viewing capitalism and human industrial activity as inherently destructive of the natural environment, Ehrlich once said: “A massive campaign must be launched to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation.” In a similar vein, Ehrlich has also made the following statements:

  • “Actually, the problem in the world is that there is [sic] much too many rich people.”
  • Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (1978)
  • “We’ve already had too much economic growth in the United States. Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure.” (Quoted in Trashing the Planet, 1990)

In 1980, the late economist Julian Simon famously challenged Ehrlich to a bet regarding the future prices of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. As The New York Times explains: “For years Mr. Ehrlich … had warned that rising populations would cause resource scarcity, even famine, with apocalyptic consequences for humanity. Mr. Simon … optimistically countered that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets and our collective ingenuity. Mr. Ehrlich believed the metal prices would rise over the decade; Mr. Simon thought the prices would stay stable or even drop.” The terms of the bet required that the loser would pay, ten years later, the change in price of a $1,000 bundle of the five metals. Simon won the bet, as the prices of the five metals in 1990 were about half of their 1980 levels, even though the world’s population had grown by 800 million during the decade. One day in October 1990, Simon went to the mailbox of his Maryland home and found an envelope containing a list of metal prices along with a check for $576.07 from Ehrlich; there was no accompanying note.

In 1990 as well, Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems.”

An inveterate critic of American foreign and domestic policies, Ehrlich, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, theorized that a major cause of the attacks against the United States was the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, and that American affluence was resented by much of the human race. He urged the U.S. not to respond to the attacks militarily, but rather with charity and financial aid for the people of Afghanistan while allowing that nation’s Taliban government, which had provided a safe haven for the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the 9/11 atrocities, to remain in power. Speculating on how the U.S. could “counter the intention of the terrorists” and “make a small symbolic start at solving the structural problems that have led to the current situation,” Ehrlich in September 2001 recommended that American planes should drop “parachutes carrying containers of food,” “pre-packaged medical facilities,” and “leaflets volunteering to supply physicians on loan to operate them” for the benefit of Afghanistan’s people. Explaining that “food is cheaper than bombs,” he said that this strategy “might make clear that the United States will not indiscriminately destroy innocent people to get revenge on the guilty”; “might … help counter the idea that the West wishes to wage war on Islam”; and “might give us a good start on the sort of ‘Marshall Plan to the World’ that we and others think needs to be pursued over the long term to help close the widening gap between haves and have-nots, clearly one of the roots of recent terrorism.”

In a November 2002 article titled “Getting at the Roots of Terrorism,” Ehrlich elaborated on these themes, impugning the George W. Bush administration for “its utter failure to take any steps to reduce the factors that inspire terrorists to attack us,” and its “apparent plans to take control of Iraq’s vast petroleum reserves.” “Oil,” Ehrlich added, “also explains the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which enrages some Muslims, especially Osama bin Laden.” Ehrlich identified “demographic and socioeconomic factors, especially poverty, inequality and large numbers of young men facing dim economic prospects,” as “likely contributors to terrorism.” “[T]he severely unequal distribution of wealth between and within nations,” he explained, along with America’s “oil profligacy” and its “exceptional support of Israel,” had caused Muslims’ rage to boil over into acts of great violence. “I am convinced that the prudent course for the United States and other rich nations,” Ehrlich said, “is to work to ameliorate social and economic rich-poor disparities while trying to unravel the complex root causes of terrorism…. The United States should play a central role in improving demographic and socioeconomic conditions in developing nations. It is one of the stingiest rich nations in terms of development assistance … Exacerbating terrorist tendencies are policies [such as] waging war on anyone who we decide might impede the flow of oil into American SUVs and dollars into the pockets of George Bush’s friends.”

In 2008, when Ehrlich was still a Stanford University professor of population studies and the president of the university’s Center for Conservation Biology, he and his wife co-authored the book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, which claimed that an ever-growing human population would eventually overwhelm the earth’s life-sustaining systems. In a round-table discussion sponsored by that September, Ehrlich said: “Overpopulation is a huge problem. But most people think of it as just being too many people. It’s when you add up the numbers of people, how much they consume, and what kind of technologies they use.” In the same discussion, Ehrlich also stated: “In a country like the United States, we should stop at two [children per family]. But if you had an ideal situation, you might have a lot of people who have no children at all, and some people who have as many as three or four because they happen to be particularly good parents, and are going to raise their children very well.” When asked whether such a goal could be accomplished without coercive public policy, he replied: “It depends on what your definition of coercion is. You could simply raise the taxes very high on people who have beyond two children.”

When the earth’s population reached 7 billion in October 2011, Ehrlich said: “I think it’s cause for a lot of alarm and so does every scientist I know. You have got to face it, we still have close to 3 billion people living in poverty, almost a billion hungry. We are wrecking our environment, we are changing the climate, we are toxifying the planet from pole to pole and the worst thing is that nobody is doing anything about it.”

In 2015, Ehrlich remained convinced that his previous predictions about widespread catastrophe resulting from overpopulation were accurate. “My language would be even more apocalyptic today,” he said.

Ehrlich once served as an honorary board member of the David Suzuki Foundation, alongside the late Maurice Strong.

For additional information on Paul Ehrlich, click here.

Additional Resources:

Further Reading:The Doomslayer” (by, 2-1-1997); “Great Moments in Failed Predictions” (by, 1-19-2013).

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